Thursday, June 29, 2006

Will This Marriage Last? – Independence Is Revolutionary In A Marriage

From Ash:

As some people begin to take off for a nice long holiday weekend (and I, who will be working, am jealous of all of you), I think it's a good time to consider that Independence Day is not a just a reason for a 3-day sale on jeans, or a day to picnic and play with illegal fireworks.

Instead, I want to talk about independence within a marriage. Because it turns out that our societal independence has a lot to do with our marriages.

But first, let's discuss the other usual way we hear the word independence – in the phrase "financial independence."

Family economics affect family dynamics. The one who brings home the most money usually is the person in the family who is the most powerful and the most autonomous – or, in today's vocabulary, the most independent. The primary breadwinner decides where the family's money goes (which determines what activities, interests, etc. the other family members can pursue). Everyone else has a lesser amount of authority, relative to the amount of money he or she contributes.

Now, as Po wrote yesterday, couples with more money are less likely to divorce. That's absolutely true. A couple with nothing may be more likely to divorce because they don't have any assets to fight over. A couple with a lot may not divorce because of the assets. And it isn't just that upper-middle class couples divorce less than poorer couples; instead, the richer a couple is, the less likely they are split up. The Donald Trumps of the world notwithstanding, wealthier couples are less likely to divorce because they have so much more to lose from a division of assets (pre-nup anyone?). The wealthy couple will have to face a court and legal bills in arguing over how gets the house on the beach. They may have be in the public eye and are loathe to cause a scandal. So they stay married, even if they use their wealth to live comparatively separate existences.

In almost every case, rich or poor, should the couple get divorced, it is the woman who is going to be hurt financially. For a variety of reasons, it’s still true that women make less than men. They usually become the primary custodian of children, so they have lower income and higher expenses than the spouse. (Anecdotally, we hear about huge alimonies and divisions of property favoring the women, the reality is that spousal support is awarded in less than 15% of divorces, and usually then it isn't much money, and limited in time.)

So women have less financial incentive to get divorced. They know it's going to cost them.

Here's where this gets tricky. It's going to sound like a contradiction: While it's true that wealtheir couples divorce less, it's also true that women who contribute a greater proportion of the family income are more likely to divorce. Women who earn nearly as much as their husband, (or more), are likelier to divorce - and that's at any tax bracket.

Now, why is that?

Because these women have the resources to leave.

Financially, they will still probably be worse off after a divorce, but they already have enough money to get by. Or they see the possibility that once they’ve left, they know they can get more resources. For example, if I got married and decided to be a fulltime stay-at-home mom, even if I didn’t have any income at the time, I would still always be aware that I could restart a career as an attorney. I would never feel dependent on a husband’s income. [Note to future divorce attorneys or judges in an asset-dissolution proceeding should such occur: that’s a hypothetical and, in no way, should be seen as representative of my actual views.]

This is not to say that any woman’s income threatens a couple’s marriage. The real factor is the percentage she contributes – how much she makes compared to the husband – that is important. The financial issue here really only comes into play when the woman makes 50% or more of the family’s entire income – no matter what that total income is.

Her income-earning, or even the potential of her earning, thus changes the family dynamics and, along with them, marital stability.

The bottom line is that financial independence can lead can increase her willingness to divorce. If she can decide to leave, financially, then it becomes her independent decision whether or not to stay.

And thus she becomes less dependent on the marriage as a whole.

Which brings me back to the Fourth of July.

In a democratic society, as Jefferson so elegantly wrote, we believe that each individual is created equal and has the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

And while we may disagree about how it plays out in a given instance, on principle, we so agree with Jefferson’s basic premise of equality and individual freedom, that we consider that idea to be at the core of what it means to be an American.

So we live in a democratic society that values, above all else, egalitarianism and individualism. It permeates every aspect of our society. We despise despots, authority figures and weak-minded people who can’t think or fend for themselves. Issues of fair salaries, free speech, freedom from discrimination, belief that all children should be educated, etcera, etcera. It all comes from our two-fold belief in equality and individual autonomy.

We believe in individuality above all else. With one small exception.

Your family.

Once you’re talking about your family, everything you value in society is supposed to be tossed aside.

Suddenly, it’s not your decisions that are important, but those of the family as a whole. Families are patriarchical and hierarchical. A family that is unified and stayed together is lauded. An individual who leaves the family – even when s/he has every reason to do it – is frowned upon and constantly admonished to return to the fold. Your needs should be subjugated to those of your children. If you want your marriage to work, the experts will warn, you need to compromise and expect that you can’t always have your way. You can expect to sacrifice your fulfillment for the sake of your spouse’s, children, siblings, parents. You might regularly silence your opinions to preserve family harmony.

As long as you’re under my roof, you’ll do what I say.
Go to your room.
Go ask your mother.
We’re moving because he got a new job. I don't have a choice.
Wait til your father hears about this.
How could you do that to your grandmother?
I don't really want to go, but it's a family obligation.
Bastard thought his happiness was worth more than his wife's and kids'.
Share your toys with your sister. Or else.
We’re a family, and we stick together.

Most marriage ceremonies seem to have taken the "obey" part out of the "love and honor" marriage vows. But when did that happen, and we think that's just a line-edit? Or is that change symbolic of the fact that marriage is based in a fundamentally different relationship – one of a union of equals – than there was in years past?

In other words, there’s an argument to be made that our concept of family goes against everything we hold dear in our larger society.

Can we really expect to set aside everything we value in society once we cross the threshold of our homes? Of course not.

And we don’t.

The more egalitarian our relationships in society are, the more egalitarian we expect our personal relationships to be.

Considering this, it should come to no surprise when I tell you that, around the globe, democratic societies have higher divorce rates than those with more hierarchical structures. The US has the highest divorce rate, but we're also the oldest continuous democratic tradition. Societies with more stratified, patriarchical cultures have lower divorce rates. To the point that as a formerly-despotic society becomes increasingly democraticized, the divorce rate climbs alongside that larger societal transformation.

I’m not saying that’s right or wrong, but what I am saying is that we need to recognize that there’s an undeniable tension in our society that we do, in fact, too often deny. We have to realize that valuing personal independence means just that. And that there are benefits and losses that we pay for that value.

To those who say the family is the foundation of our society, and that our societal institutions are jeopardizing that cornerstone, Au contraire. It is independence and equality that are supposed to be the foundation of our society.

Given that, we may have to recognize that any societal institution that conflicts with those values – yes, even marriage and families – will inevitably transform.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder if some of the divorce rate among women who contribute 50% or more of the family income has to do with what I call "Kevin Federline Syndrome."

That is, the woman is contributing the bulk of the income...AND the housework...AND the emotional work...and not getting much in return. Meanwhile "Kevin" is doing a lot of taking and very little giving. So the high-earning woman married to a Kevin might well think, "I'm giving so much and getting so little in return - to hell with this! I'm outta here."

A woman whose husband is the main breadwinner might still be doing most of the housework and emotional caregiving, but at least she's getting his income in return.

There was a film called "Baby Boy" which explored the Kevin phenomenon amongst working-class African-Americans.

1:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent article.

I would like to note that although personal independence and satisfaction have become paramount to almost every member of American society, It seems as if the "numbers game" of crunching statistics has passed the point-- Why do people in the face of such harrowing facts such as divorce rates and "anti-traditional marriage culture" still choose to stay married? I am not sure if broad-sweeping statistics clearly answer that question.

Personally, I think that many people choose to find happiness in marriage simply because it makes more sense than getting divorced and starting over. People enjoy searching, especially when anxiety and fear are driving them towards success.

Problems with compatability have always existed in marriage. Now what we do with our new-found independece is the real deceiding factor!

5:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

People have been adopting a much more individualized paradigm with repect to marriage, and children. It is my opinion that higher incone families divorce less because there is significantly less stress in relationships where the couple are not constantly worried about survival; a substantial number of fights can be attributed to monetary issues. The division of asset theory is a good one, and does hold water, but I believe the primary explanation for this stat is the fights over money. The Kevin theory is one that applies to both women and men. Irresponsibility and lazyness are traits that do not discriminate because of gender: they apply to both genders equally, and any insinuation that either gender has more occurences of this Kevin syndrome should be supported with statistics from reliable and cited sources.

10:25 AM  

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